On an equinox, day and night are of equal length; the dark time and light time balance each other. This Sunday was the Vernal Equinox, but it also was a sort of personal equinox for me. It is a time of turning over to a new season, on levels literal, emotional, metaphorical.

There really have been no appropriate bins of seasonal clothing, no decorative seasonal garden flags, no holiday decor to pretty up this last couple of years. Since a good writer friend told me she loves my lists, I’ll list some of the events and characteristics this looooooong last season has featured:

  • Burnout
  • Panic attacks
  • Pandemic
  • Divorce
  • Money problems (see: divorce)
  • Professional rejections and disappointments
  • Missed opportunities
  • Failures
  • Cancellations
  • Health problems: mental, kidney, brain, uterine, teeth, jaws, joints, Covid
  • Treatments: surgeries (5), braces (1 set), medications (so many)
  • Overwhelm
  • Self-judgment
  • Dissociation
  • Near-total societal badness

Lots of dark in that season, and all the flashlights out of batteries at times.

BUT. I arrived home at 4 am Sunday, on the vernal equinox, from a trip. Climbing into my bed, I thought vaguely, “I made it.” And on Monday, I woke up to these sights:

What you are seeing is living stuff revealing that not only is it still alive, it is growing new stuff! And even though spring/new “leaf” (get it?)/new life metaphors are cliches, they are also true.

New light this spring:

  • Headspace
  • Embodiment
  • New love that feeds, not starves
  • Teeth, jaws and face that cooperate
  • Writing ideas
  • Energy
  • Medicines (different and better ones)!
  • Fun plans
  • Self-compassion
  • No part of my body is cold right now!

There may be a pandemic, still. Education is still full of disappointments and frustrations, both personal and systemic. So is society. And life. There may still be lots of societal badness, complete with wars and oppression and tons of harm. I even still wake up every day with joints that hurt and more ideas than I can ever finish, and I want more money.

But still! Leaves are growing! I made it.

I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge
hosted by Two Writing Teachers

“I’m getting to know a different side of you,” he said

I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge
hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Which of the ones folks know is me? The one who writes, a lot, boldly? The one who has three books in progress but works on none? In one place I’m a leader, in another, behind. Among teachers, an author and friend; among academics, someone who had potential. Or still does? Senior colleague or deadwood? I can’t say.

To a regular person (do I know any of those?), in a regular town (not my college town of super-people), I’m a person who has written a book. Ok, four of them. An Author.

Which of the ones folks know is me? The one whose kids skip grades? Who throws good parties, or volunteers at church or school? Or one who cries, overwhelmed, that she can’t do it until the laundry is put away? And the laundry can’t be put away because it’s piled up; it’s un-beginnable. And I can’t wash laundry until laundry is put away, and I can’t tidy up with all this laundry everywhere, and I can’t work with everything so untidy, and I can’t tidy because I have too much work, and I can’t work because I’m too overwhelmed, and, and, and. That one? And did I take my meds today?

The teacher-writer? The full professor? The ex-wife? Wayward daughter? The program lead, the one who forgot, the committee chair, the fuckup? The girlfriend? The single mom, the MILF, the middle-aged, the grey? The extra ten pounds, the “hx hysterectomy,” the grumpy, the short kid, the bookworm, the blonde? Yes, that’s my real color, no highlights, no makeup. No filter. Except when I give in to wanting a filter. And on Zoom. Every professor deserves a damn Zoom filter.

Which one is me? The wounded kid or this take-no-shit feminist? The liberal, the radical? The Christian, the Sunday school teacher, the mom bringing cupcakes? High test scores, or self-hatred? ADHD or genius? Metal head or choir singer? Optimist?

A light under a bushel, or a fucking volcanic eruption of Big Feelings?

I had a magical friend who gave me the best gift when I was away at summer grad school in Vermont (camp for adults!), missing my female partner and sleeping with a man who didn’t deserve me. (He would write me, five years later, only to learn that by then I had married):

“Anne,” she proclaimed. You’re allowed to be complex.”

And I have been!

On not having any ideas

Why is it that all my best writing ideas happen when I’m driving a car? I don’t even like driving.

It’s been like this for as long as I could drive. Wait… it’s been like this for as long as I could write. When I’m cleaning, or walking, or driving, I have so many ideas. And they are all so good! But of course I’m doing something, and I don’t write them down, and I don’t remember them when I might write them down. And I’m no beginner, so I’ve learned from my forgetting, and now I often make a voice memo or tell Alexa or take a note on my notes app or the back of my hand.

Later, when I sit down to write, I look at those notes and forget what I meant. Or I remember, but the ideas seem much dumber than I remembered. Notes or no, when I’m sitting with my open notebook or at the keyboard, I hate everything I write. It feels like I have no ideas.

For so much of my teaching career, I couldn’t understand what kids meant when they said they had “no ideas.” What do you mean, no ideas? Everyone has ideas. I’m having tons right now. Brains are electrical idea cauldrons, with more ideas bubbling up than we can even grab onto and think about. At least that’s how it’s always felt to me. How can they have no ideas?

But now, having found myself feeling I had no ideas and even saying I had no ideas, I have some ideas about ideas.

I now understand my writers, kids and adults and basically everyone who’s felt they had no ideas, much better. When they say they have no ideas, they mean one of at least these two things. One, they have ideas, but they’re like the ones I make in my notes: they seem less good now, and the writer becomes afraid of going with them, for fear of looking stupid. This isn’t a writing problem, or an ideas problem, it’s a guts problem. I know this one well.

Two, they haven’t actually started trying to write yet, but they are scared they won’t have any ideas when they do. So, they don’t start trying. This isn’t a writing problem either, and if it’s an ideas problem, it’s not lack of ideas at all but simply a delay in ideas. And the delay is caused by fear. So, again, a guts problem.

Ideas don’t come when we’re doing nothing but waiting for ideas to come. They come when we’re doing something. Like driving, or cleaning, or walking. Or, they come when we’re doing something like…writing! Yes! We usually need to start writing in order for the ideas faucet to really turn on.

Or, clean or walk or drive or shower or something. Live. Do things. Notice how ideas come.

Then, the guts problem. If you don’t have the guts to go with the ideas that surely come, think on this: what other ideas do you have? Probably none except for the ones that you do have. So, guts or no… might as well go with those.

By the way, when I opened this Post window and started typing, I had no idea what I would write. I remembered having some good ideas while driving this afternoon, but they didn’t seem so good after all. I sat doing nothing. Finally I started typing. And here we are!

I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge
hosted by Two Writing Teachers

I wrote tonight

I wrote tonight.

Before that, I wrote with a group of teachers, all tired from a long day, a long winter, a long year, all brave and committing to write together.

Before that, I quickly ate the chicken with peanut sauce, brown rice, snap peas and potstickers that I had made. On my son’s plate was just the chicken, plain. On my daughter’s plate was just the potstickers, plain.

Before that, I drove my son home from robot club in the fading daylight. My son explained about technical diagrams and quizzed me hard about a video game taking place in a house. 

Before that, I bought a snowblower from a neighbor. It’s only me, I said, and it’s too much to shovel. We wished together for a robot that you could just send out to clear your snow on a cold morning. 

Before that, I was in my house, with no video games or robots or anything. It was quiet in the house but noisy in my head.

I wrote tonight.

Note: The “before that” is a fun and easy-entry way to capture a slice of life. I learned it from my friend onathought, who undoubtedly learned it from another teacher.

Look Out, I’m Slicing!

That’s right, and I don’t just mean playing Fruit Ninja. I’m saying that finally, FINALLY this is the year that I can join the Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers.

Can I really write something sharable, daily, for more than two days in a row? Honestly, I can do almost NOTHING with any consistency. But I’m giving it my very best AND have teamed up with some great teacher-friends to make it easier!

Can’t wait!

The blessing of an extreme lack of authority

I wish someone had told me years and years ago:  It is not only OK, it is a gift to possess no authority or expertise whatsoever.

Sure, in areas of life in which I am the responsible party, I need authority to carry out my work. And I’ve spent a good chunk of my professional life thinking hard about the authority of teachers and teacher candidates, and how writing forges authority.

But today, I’m seeing that in some cases, authority just gets in the way.  There’s a blessing in feeling so novice in a thing that one can simply show up and learn.  And that’s just what I’ll be doing on Friday at a conference session I’m excited about.

At the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention, a roundtable session (Session A.06) will focus on “Religion, Spirituality, and the Work of Literacy Education.”  Tables will gather to listen and discuss very smart scholars sharing research on aspects of literacy education as it intersects with religion and spirituality. The papers are fantastic. They are wide-ranging, from histories of religious oppression expressed in English Language Arts classrooms to efforts to read more mindfully, drawing more explicitly on religious literacies, to accounts of spiritual dimensions of students’ and teachers’ engagement in English teaching and learning. My role is to provide a “response.” This is open-ended, but the typical thing to do would be to summarize the papers, synthesizing them and drawing forward key themes and an agenda for future research.

For the two weeks I have had the papers, I have been unable to write that kind of statement.  Don’t get me wrong– I CAN write one and have written them. My problem isn’t lack of ideas or lack of experience of the task. It’s that I don’t think these researchers need that kind of response from me.  Fact: they are ALL out ahead of me when it comes to research and theory in this area. For many of them it is a specialization; for me it is a set of curiosities. While I know how to speak authoritatively on this topic and in this setting, and could do it, the truth is that I lack any real authority with this group of people.

So. Am I stuck?  No! The opposite!  Because I am a learner in relationship to these people, what I can do is just be me. I can tell some stories that connect to what I have read, and I can offer my stories as question sites to which their very smart work might be applied. So, people who show up can expect to hear not a “Respondent talk” but instead a couple of funny stories, told with love, and a whole bunch of questions.

If you’re at NCTE, come to the session!  It’s going to be wonderful. A.06, 9:30-10:45 am, in Room 127.

What summer writing looks like

Guest post this week on Writers Who Care!

It’s late summer and all is quiet on the seminary front. United Lutheran Seminary is now a reality, not a plan, but for me that just meant that no courses were offered this summer. So, a break.

But quiet on the work and seminary front means things go noisy and active on the home front!  Summer is all about my kids and about remembering how to be a person; though I do also work through the summer, I try to pretend like I don’t.

And of course, since I’m me, writing is happening. Over on Writers Who Care you can find out what my kids and I are writing this summer– and what we’re not!

Writing is hard

Writing is hard. That’s it; that’s the main secret I have learned in my 20 years as a writing teacher and writing researcher.

Wait, you knew that already? Of course you did. Anyone who has ever written has felt writing’s difficulty. Sometimes it’s starting at the blank page or screen, not knowing how to begin. Other times it’s sitting stuck in the middle of a sentence or a paragraph, reaching for a word that doesn’t come. Or it’s writing oneself halfway into an argument that suddenly, somewhere in the middle, breaks down. Or it’s sharing writing with a reader and finding, painfully, that you have not made yourself clear, or—more often—hesitating fearfully before sharing with a reader, or before writing at all, for fear of criticism.

Writing is filled with hard moments. Even the most skilled writers find it difficult. But the best and most prolific writers have something that many others don’t: the hard moments don’t stop them. They know that if they can face the hard moments, the moments will pass—and the bad feelings of those moments, the shame and fear and worry— will pass too. They also have a repertoire of strategies for getting through those hard moments productively: routines for settling down and getting to work, strategies for drafting and revising, and skills for eliciting helpful feedback from others and for processing the feedback they receive.

In school, however, we often pretend writing is easy, or that it should be. “OK, write for ten minutes,” we say, and we expect people simply to begin. Or we hand out prompts, and days or weeks later, we collect pieces of writing. These practices hide the difficulty of writing in ways that writers take personally. When writers struggle, they end up feeling they are doing so alone. They look around, see other students seemingly doing fine, and then they take their own difficulty as a sign that they’re doing it wrong, or worse, that they simply aren’t good writers.

Better to open up the difficulty of writing, to name its hard moments and explicitly teach how to get through those moments.

For example, when asking students to quickwrite, I do so too. As I begin, I speak aloud my feelings and what I am doing about those feelings. “Starting can be hard; I always worry my ideas will be stupid. But usually if I can just begin with something, even something stupid, I’ll get through it and it comes out OK,” I explain. And then I write with the class, in my own notebook or on the overhead screen, thinking aloud as I do it: “I’m not sure where to start,” I’ll say, “so first I’m just listing a couple of

words that come to mind… oh, ok, I like this one. Now I’m just going to write down what comes to my mind.”

Or when sending students off to write at home, I preview some of the hard moments that might come. “Here’s what I do when I find I’m procrastinating.” “Here’s what I do when I’m stuck on the first sentence.” “Here’s what I do when I find I keep switching over to Facebook when I should be writing.” “Here’s what I do when my sentences seem aimless.”

(And the main thing I do, in all of those hard moments: Take a deep breath. Write a little anyway. Cut myself some slack.)

Once we acknowledge that writing is hard, we can do something about it. We can tell ourselves helpful things, encourage ourselves to go on trying. If writing is hard for you at moments, you’re doing it right, not wrong.

“Yes, are you finding this difficult?” I ask. “ Oh good! You’re doing it right. It’s not hard because you’re stupid, or not a good writer, or in the wrong class—it’s hard because it’s hard.” Just this reassurance is often enough to get writers going. Bodies relax, shoulders descend, and jaws unclench. A few quick smiles silently say Yes, that is what I was thinking.

Our society tends to deny negative emotions, and I’m no different. As I circulate through my classroom during writing time, I sometimes catch myself turning away from a student who is struggling, as if to give him/her some privacy. I don’t want to embarrass a writer by calling attention to the problem, and so I walk by, thinking I’ll return in a moment after he’s had a chance to get started or after I see she at least has a few words down.

But on a good day, I can do better. Different hard moments call for different responses, but I am convinced that encountering another human being in a hard moment demands at least some response, even if it’s simply to stand beside the one who is struggling.

Sometimes I offer a strategy: like when the words simply do not come, and I feel stuck at a blank page, I roll my chair away form the desk, face another direction, and tell it to the wall. Literally. I talk to the wall. Or when the critical voices in my head get too loud, and I can’t write without hearing them judging every line, I sometimes start a new document and begin as if it’s a letter. Dear (name), I begin, writing to someone who will love anything I do, warts and all. Later I can change it back to the real audience. These strategies may not be groundbreaking, but to students they often feel as if they are: the teacher is recognizing and responding to the feelings of writing. Simply acknowledging that there are feelings, and that they are normal, is often enough.